It’s a new year for the individual US state legislatures, and after a relatively unsuccessful 2012 in passing anti-science laws (with the notable exception of Tennessee’s Monkey Bill), the conservative Republicans are back trying to remove real science teaching from our kids. The anti-science legislation comes in the form of either teaching creationism (or more subtle forms, like intelligent design), usually combined with climate change denialism, and, strangely, anti-human cloning (which is not exactly a serious line of research today). But the goal is, and will probably always be, to teach creationism.
Creationism refers to the belief that the universe and everything in it were specially created by a god through magic, rather than natural, scientifically explained, means. Creationism implicitly relies on the claim that there is a “purpose” to all creation known only to the creator. In other words, creationism is a religious belief, and no matter what argument is made (and I could write 50,000 words on the topic), creationism is not science because it relies upon a supernatural being, which means it can never be falsified, one of the basic principles of the scientific method. The supporters of creationism attempt to claim that creationism is a scientific theory on the level of evolution, ignoring the fact that a scientific theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” Creationism is generally based on a fictional book.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, specifically prohibits any government entity from establishing a religion (which courts have ruled to include teaching religion in schools). Decades worth of Supreme Court rulings have found that teaching creationism in schools is equivalent to teaching religion. As recently as 2005, in Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, a Federal Court continued the tradition of considering creationism as religion, and ruled against a school district, costing the Dover Area School District nearly $1 million in legal fees. That money probably could have been used to teach their students better science.
Despite these legal rulings, seven states have introduced antievolution and anti-science bills:
- Colorado. A bill in the Colorado House (HB 13-1089) was offered that used the “academic freedom” canard which allows the teacher the “freedom” to teach whatever “theory” or belief of science they want, including the non-scientific creationism. What was particularly offensive about HB 13-1089 was that it was going to make the same requirement in Colorado’s schools of higher education. I could not imagine that a faculty member in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado would teach a basic geology course by explaining that the world is only 6000 years old. And be protected by law. Lucky for science education in Colorado, it failed to make it out of committee, albeit by only a 7-6 vote.
- Arizona. Another antievolution and climate change denier bill, introduced in the Arizona Senate, SB 1213, uses the same “academic freedom” strategy to “create an environment in schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues” and to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.” Let me make a point here–there are no scientific controversies about climate change or evolution. None. There are only people who deny the vast mountains of scientific facts (and who are almost always not scientists). That’s not a controversy.
- Indiana. HB 1283, very similar to one introduced last year, is a fairly creative and “stealthy” bill that actually doesn’t mention evolution or climate change directly. Instead, it uses the “academic freedom” canard broadly to the teaching of any scientific, historical or health theory. So it would give cover and protection to any teacher who stood up in front of biology class and babbled on about creationism as being factual or a theory equivalent in scientific strength as evolution.
- Missouri. There are two bills introduced in the state’s House: HB 179 and HB 291. The former bill is the typical “academic freedom” bill which provides legal protection to any teacher who wants to push their religious beliefs on Missouri students. The latter, HB 291, specifically allows for the teaching of intelligent design as equivalent to the theory of evolution, despite the Kitzmiller ruling where the court stated that intelligent design is nothing more than a religious doctrine. The chief sponsor of HB 291, Rick Brattin, attempts to redefine, within the scope of the bill, things like “scientific theory” and “scientific law” (which are different principles, which the bill conflates and confuses to the point of silliness). As John Timmer writes at Ars Technica, “the bill demands anything taught as scientific law to have ‘no known exceptions.’ That would rule out teaching Mendel’s law, which has a huge variety of exceptions, such as when two genes are linked together on the same chromosome.”
- Montana. The state’s House introduced HB 183 which was intended to allow teachers to teach the scientific controversies in evolution and climate change. The nonexistent controversies of course. It was tabled by the Montana House Education Committee, so it’s going nowhere.
- Oklahoma. The state’s legislature, after failing to pass antievolution bills on procedural issues last year, is studying two proposed anti-science bills, one in each chamber of the legislature. The first bill, SB 758, will require state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies” and permit teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.” The bill doesn’t specifically mention evolution. The Oklahoma House version of the bill, HB 1674, is very similar, but does mention evolution and climate change.
- Texas. HB 285 is another “academic freedom” bill that states that “an institution of higher education may not discriminate against or penalize in any manner, especially with regard to employment or academic support, a faculty member or student based on the faculty member’s or student’s conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.” Similar bills in Texas have failed to get out of committee, which I find amazing.
Let’s be clear as I can. There are no controversies with regards to evolution or climate change. Those theories are well established and are accepted by a broad consensus of scientists in the field. Even with abiogenesis, the theory of the beginning of life (which is not covered by the theory of evolution), the only controversy is in the exact mechanism, not in the fact that life arose out of basic chemicals and energy approximately 3.5-3.9 billion years ago. If someone wants to create a “scientific controversy” in these theories, they must bring scientific data and analysis from a world class laboratory staffed by world-class Ph.D-level scientists with that data published in a world class journal, subject to repetition, analysis and criticism by other scientists in other world class laboratories. A clueless politician in a right-wing state does not get to invent a “scientific controversy” by saying one exists. One has to show it.
But this anti-science strategy of the right has consequences. It further reduces the USA’s technological competitiveness in the world. In fact, the World Economic Forum report on Global Competitiveness ranks the united states as 47th in quality of math and science education (see chart image above the fold). The USA ranks 38th in primary education. And if the US produces high school and college students who think that the earth is 6000 years old or that some supernatural creates organisms, then how are they going to do research in biomedicines, geology, diseases, and hundreds of other natural sciences? Companies that need those highly educated individuals will go where those educated students are located, whether it’s in other states or move the companies to countries who don’t allow religion in teaching. Or higher foreign-educated engineers and scientists.
California, New York and other progressive states that never allow anti-science legislation should be be making sure that they promote themselves to technology companies that are considering placing facilities in these backwards states. Makes sense to me.